As the Democratic Party of Japan, which suffered a crushing defeat in the Sept. 11 Lower House election, begins a rejuvenation effort under its new leader, Mr. Seiji Maehara, the No. 1 opposition party must solve difficult problems to turn it into a party capable of seizing power.
In the election, the party’s strength dwindled from 177 seats to 113 while Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party increased its strength from 212 seats to 296 in the 480-member Lower House. Since the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito now holds more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats, and thus may pass into law any bill that the Upper House rejects, the DPJ’s role of saving the ruling coalition from its own excesses is essential.
In a party presidential election on Sept. 17, Mr. Maehara, 43, defeated Mr. Naoto Kan, who had already served as the party president twice, by a narrow margin of 96-94. Maehara’s win over the 58-year-old veteran indicates that the party has opted for a fresh start under a younger leader.
After his election, Mr. Maehara made it clear that, in choosing party executives and forming a shadow Cabinet, he will attach importance to meritocracy and put “the right person in the right place.” He picked the 58-year-old former party president Mr. Yukio Hatoyama as secretary general and appointed younger members to posts in his shadow Cabinet. The average age of this shadow Cabinet is 49.8, compared with 56 for his predecessor Katsuya Okada’s and 58.2 for Mr. Koizumi’s official Cabinet. But the new shadow Cabinet has not been tested yet. If it does not prove strong enough to counter Mr. Koizumi’s Cabinet in future Diet deliberations, criticism from and friction with veteran party members may arise.
The DPJ’s election defeat is attributed to Mr. Okada’s failure to offer a clear counterproposal to the postal-service privatization bills pushed by Mr. Koizumi as the main issue of the election. Mr. Maehara thinks the failure was due to the party’s ties with labor unions opposed to postal privatization. Consequently, he said his party will break away from labor union and other vested interests. But this is easier said than done.
It is a fact that labor unions did contribute somewhat to increasing the strength of the DPJ in past elections. If he is true to his word, Mr. Maehara will need to work out a strategy to win in elections without relying on these votes. Yet, relying solely on floating votes will be a difficult path to tread, as the most recent election results show.
The DPJ lost big in urban areas, especially Tokyo, where floating votes played a decisive role. In the capital, the DPJ won only 4 percent of the seats against the LDP’s 92 percent.
Mr. Maehara says he will turn his party into a “fighting organization” to counter Mr. Koizumi’s LDP. The DPJ needs to develop feasible counterproposals to policy measures of the government and the LDP on important issues such as postal reform, financial revival, reform of social security including pension and medical services, and measures to deal with the graying of society and declining national population. But what is more important is presenting an overall antithesis to the LDP’s general policy line, which has been subsumed under the catch phrases of “reform” and “small government.”
The DPJ, too, has been projecting itself as a party for reform. Mr. Maehara needs to explain in plain words to the public how the reform his party aims to achieve is different from that pursued by the LDP. The DPJ needs to create a total picture of the society that it hopes to help create.
Mr. Maehara says he wants to establish “efficient government” by slashing public works and waste in bureaucracy and to divert government money to create a firm “safety net” through improved education and social security. He must not only develop detailed measures to realize his ideas but also present them in short and clear-cut concepts that win the hearts of people.
Mr. Maehara differentiated himself from Mr. Koizumi by making it clear that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine. But his view on the Constitution is likely to provoke criticism from pacifist-minded people. He favors abolishing Article 9, Section 2, which bans possession of land, sea and air forces as well as other war-making capabilities, and favors having the Self-Defense Forces act overseas in “collective defense” if necessary, including participation in a multinational force.
In this regard, the people may see no difference between the DPJ and the LDP. Conflict between Mr. Maehara and pacifist forces within his party could become unavoidable. Mr. Maehara has taken on tough challenges with his new post.
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